By David W. Boles
Form follows function. This principle has proved true throughout the ages, and data entry on the Web is no exception. The form was not easily attained, though. It used to be a chore just to build a Web-based data-entry form; actually managing forms and database server integration was an even more dreadful experience that could leave you weak-kneed. You either had to become a CGI (common gateway interface) programming expert, or you had to hire one. CGI is not a visually oriented language like Visual Basic, so learning it requires a significant investment of time and effort.
If CGI is still king of the hill, blame UNIX's popularity. Many of the largest Internet service providers (ISPs) are still using UNIX as the OS of choice on their Internet servers. This is due in part to UNIX's ease of installation and kludge-ability: Once you've mastered UNIX's cryptic syntax, you can make fixes and workarounds on the fly. But the need to master CGI is quickly becoming superfluous, with companies like Netscape, Microsoft and Macromedia plunging headlong into alternatives to tricky CGI programming. With the slew of new Web authoring tools and server extensions, you're effectively protected from the perils of CGI scripting.
The new breed of authoring and server tools does for Web data what the calculator did for balancing your checkbook. You can now design a sophisticated intranet or Internet site that can process forms and data via wizards, objects, simple drag-and-drop and WebBots, automated utilities similar to wizards. As prices for RAM and hard disk storage continue to drop, memory- and space-intensive apps like Netscape's Enterprise server and Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) will become more widely used. Both systems feature simple setup, easy use and quick-fix ability, but they require a fairly powerful system to run properly.
Let's examine some of the crop of programs available now that can help you create and process forms, as well as perform some server database interaction. Remember that many of these may not work straight out of the box with every ISP, since each processes CGI in a proprietary manner.
In fact, many national ISPs provide ready-made CGI scripts on their systems for end-user implementation. Check with your ISP to see if it already has forms CGI scripts in place that you can use for your own Web needs.
asksam Web Publisher brings the power of askSam's renowned document management right to your Web site by putting full-text searchable documents and databases on the Internet without HTML codes or programming. Just type or import the information into askSam, and askSam Web Publisher does the rest.
AskSam provides native import filters for text, HTML, Eudora, Word for Windows 6.0 and 7.0, WordPerfect 5.0 through 6.0, CompuServe Information Manager, Lexis/Nexis, RTF, DBF, CSV and tab-delimited data. It allows full-text searches using single words, phrases, wildcards, relative positions, numbers and dates, as well as Boolean and fuzzy searches. It will even search across multiple askSam databases. To set up askSam for use on the Web, your server needs to be running NT or Windows 95.
The askSam Web Publisher is browser-independent-your site visitors don't need to have askSam installed to take advantage of your online databases.
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The Backstage product line gives you a wide range of price and functionality that includes a basic Web-design package, as well as full-blown server software. Macromedia was the first to blend an authoring program with server-side application development, resulting in an intuitive site-creation toolset.
The program's Backstage Objects make it easy to create forms for database entry. These objects serve the same purpose in Backstage as the WebBots do in FrontPage. While protecting you from having to actually learn CGI, Backstage uses it as its underlying mechanism. The Backstage server creates Web pages dynamically, manages objects and connects everything to the database.
The Macromedia Backstage Objects server is compatible with the Internet Factory Commerce Server, Microsoft IIS and the Netscape Commerce, Enterprise and FastTrack Servers. In addition, O'Reilly's Web Server will run Backstage Objects in the future on both NT and Windows 95.
To create a form with Macromedia Backstage, simply open a new document in the Backstage Designer and select Insert from the File menu, then choose Backstage Object from the drop-down menu. Map your information to the appropriate database columns, and Backstage will take care of the rest.
Macromedia has also added a toolbar feature to its Designer program. It inserts placeholders for Java applets, Microsoft ActiveX controls and Macromedia Shockwave plug-ins with a single click.
Microsoft dbWeb is a gateway between ODBC data sources and Microsoft's IIS server. Using dbWeb, you can publish information from SQL Server, Access, Visual FoxPro, Oracle and any other database program that supports 32-bit ODBC.
To publish a database with Microsoft dbWeb, you'll need to install the program on a Microsoft IIS server system. Then, using the dbWeb Administrator and an ODBC data source, choose the pieces of your database you want to implement on the Web through the dbWeb Schema Wizard.
No knowledge of HTML or Internet server application programming interface (ISAPI) is needed to create your dbWeb schemas, since the program employs a Wizard to get your information. Since the dbWeb service is an ISAPI application, it can provide better performance and easier setup on an NT Web server than a CGI application.
The Schema Wizard will allow you to specify search fields for a Query-by-Example (QBE) Web page, choose data fields that will show on a tabular Web page displaying the list of records, and specify jumps from the list of records to a single record displayed on a freeform Web page.
FrontPage is an extremely intuitive WYSIWYG authoring tool that facilitates forms creation and processing. To create a form interface, just select New from the File menu, then select which functions you want to add.
FrontPage WebBots give you seamless, interactive object programming that you can simply drop and pop into your Web pages. Bots encompass abilities that would normally require custom CGI programming. For example, use the Web page's Include Bot to insert the contents of a file you designate, guaranteeing that global elements on your Web pages, such as headers and footers, will be consistent within your site. The Save Results Bot pulls information from any form on your site and stores it in a format of your choosing. Other Bots included in FrontPage are the Confirmation Field Bot (for processing visitor information), the Discussion Bot (for feedback), the Registration Bot (for registering visitors) and the Search Bot.
The most disappointing part of the FrontPage Web authoring tool, ironically, is its lack of a comprehensive user manual.
AT&T's WorldNet Internet Service now provides home-page creation via FrontPage. WorldNet has all the special FrontPage extensions installed on its Web servers, and WorldNet members can whip up a FrontPage home page in a matter of minutes. For more information on how to take advantage of this major Web publishing alliance, point your browser to http://www.att.com/worldnet/.
FrontPage is more an authoring tool than a development environment. Database connectivity isn't something that comes with FrontPage out of the box, though Microsoft plans to add that functionality soon.
Netscape's approach to databases and forms is to provide a super-suite solution via Netscape Navigator Gold, LiveWire Pro, FastTrack Server and Enterprise Server. This allows for a seamless experience while authoring and programming a Web site from top to bottom. Though Netscape doesn't provide automated authoring tools like FrontPage's WebBots or Backstage's Objects, you can still get the same functionality of interaction with the Netscape server software by hand-coding it in HTML.
LiveWire Pro comes with 24 templates and you can set up forms easily with the template wizard. Netscape's Enterprise Server ships with LiveWire Pro, and FastTrack Server ships with a LiveWire runtime. But you don't need to have a system server to manage your Web sites under the LiveWire Pro setup-the LiveWire Site Manager lets you manage your Web site right from your desktop.
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Corel's Web.Data is the easiest, slickest Web database publishing program I've ever used. It has a truly beautiful interface and a simple, straightforward procedure. When you start up Web.Data, you're presented with a small window with nine icons, which format and manage your raw information for upload to the Web.
You can choose from HTML 3.0, Navigator and Internet Explorer extensions when you publish with Web.Data. The program takes care of the CGI negotiation and implementation for you in a series of simple steps:
Now you're ready to take your information to the Web. Web.Data automatically publishes your documents in HTML format. Not only does the program protect you from CGI scripting, it also protects you from having to learn HTML tags.
At press time, Corel was offering a 30-day free evaluation of Web.Data at its Web site.
Don't forget about the slick shareware solutions for forms processing and database management. Q&D Software Development, for example, has created WebMania and WebForms.
Forms responses are sent automatically to your e-mail address and can be imported directly from your POP3 mail server into a local Microsoft Access database. This allows you to click on the name of a form and view the responses in a concise, scrollable table view. WebMania cuts out all CGI interaction, and it moves all of the burden on the user's machine and not the server. As a result, no server time is used to process and store information.
Q&D's WebForms provides even greater forms customization than WebMania through the WebForms Generator. This allows you to make creative forms that have an unlimited number of controls. The program's Response Reader reads and organizes information mailed to you, and places it in table format. You don't need to clean up the text file-the Response Reader is smart enough to sift through each message and pluck out the vital information.
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Server Side Include e-mail form
When you apply server side includes (SSI) to an HTML document, you can get real-time features like the ability to send forms output via e-mail and query or update a database-all without CGI. The only catch is that to process the information, your ISP or local Web server must have the SSI extensions installed in a public directory.
SSI consists of a special sequence of characters (tokens) that you place inside your HTML code. As that page is sent from the HTTP server to your visitor, the server checks the information for these special tokens. When the server finds a token, it interprets the data therein and then initiates the appropriate action.
Here's an example of an SSI form I wrote that will e-mail information back to you upon processing. The code goes directly into your HTML document. Remember, it won't work unless you or your ISP have the SSI extensions enabled.
Give us your first name:
last name: <INPUT
<P>Now we need your email
<P>Now give us the address
of the person you want to
Subject : <INPUT NAME="Sub-
Message :<P> <TEXTAREA
<INPUT TYPE="submit" VALUE=
More Internet service providers are experimenting with SSI because it allows them to add functionality to their service without forcing their end users to learn all the complexities of CGI programming.
One problem with SSI is that the server takes a performance hit. That's because it must parse all the files it presents for SSI tokens before the pages can be loaded in a local browser. But with hard storage speed on the upswing and the cost of RAM taking a downturn, many ISPs have begun quietly adding SSI to their servers to test its security and robustness.
Some service providers may charge you for increased CPU usage if you run SSI tokens in your pages. Be sure to check with your ISP before you add the tokens. For more information on using Server Side Includes, visit http://www.questar.com/.
There IS a plethora of painless and powerful ways to manage databases and forms on the World Wide Web without having to learn how to program tricky CGI scripts. You can't lose with any of the software solutions we've suggested. Simply match your needs and resources to the program that fits best.
David W. Boles is the author of Windows 95 Communication and Online Secrets (IDG Books Worldwide, 1996). Click Here to find the e-mail IDs for our editors, who can put you in touch with this author.